Narrow Bridge

Don’t be scared, stay on the bridge and fight back.

“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.” — Rev Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Walls we have crossed

Trumpist border wall in Israel

The trumpist barrage of immigration-related executive orders has come to resemble a wall of its own accord. Between the Muslim ban,  halting refugee resettlement, expanding deportation criteria and ICE ranks and threats to cities that seek to protect their own residents, who needs border walls?

But border walls, at least, are porous, unlike the dense xenophobia emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Israeli “Separation Barrier” or “Apartheid Wall” pictured above and below, which Trump loves, to be sure, is, as you can see, porous. I also crossed the line between East and West Jerusalem many times in the back of a work truck.

Border walls are porous.
Border walls are porous. Even Trump’s favorite apartheid walls in Jerusalem.

We know the border below, but does Trump have any idea how many people cross this border every hour? Does he have any notion of the interchange that happens between Juarez and El Paso — the culture and ideas and commerce and research that sustains the border region?

Does he know that walls are death sentences, that send migrants deeper into the desert? Or that walls are mere inconveniences, to be surmounted.

Juarez El Paso border walls
You mean this border wall? Existing wall between Juarez and El Paso, shot from the highway in Juarez (2011).

What is missing in Trump’s life that he wants to build more walls?

Bad parenting.
Why didn’t Trump’s parents take him travelling?

The people making these new policies for the U.S.  — the band of white nationalists surrounding Trump and heading up his bureaucracies — choose walls, which is to say, they choose fear and isolation.

Walls, fences, barriers are symbols of failure. When we fail, we put up walls. Or land mines. Or drop cluster bombs. Is that the future we want for the southern U.S. Border?

mined border
Red triangle indicates unexploded ordinance in Southern Lebanon, near border with Israel. Is this the border we desire?
Not a terrible wall.

We are about bridges. Building bridges between languages, cultures, nations and people. Because the whole world is just one narrow bridge. At least it was two weeks ago. But don’t be afraid.

“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.” — Rev Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Reading Charles Bowden in Júarez

Charles Bowden

Charles Bowden, a prolific writer and critical observer of the U.S.-Mexico border, died at home in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday. I was introduced to Bowden’s work on my first night in Ciudad Júarez, when I visited in January 2011. The passage below, an excerpt from Amor and Exile, attempts to capture the experience of reading Bowden in Júarez.

An earlier version of the story on Bowden’s death in The Arizona Republic closed with a fitting tribute, a line Bowden once dedicated to another writing hero, Edward Abbeey: “R.I.P., but I doubt it.”

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Amor and Exile: The Waiver Scene

Betty Campbell has a mischievous, sardonic grin for a 77-year-old nun. My first night in Ciudad Juárez, she offered me her cluttered bedroom, insisting that she preferred sleeping on a mat on the living room floor so she could hear sounds from the street—the sounds of gun shots, peeling tires, and screams, maybe not every night, but frequently enough.

I threw my bag down in the quiet, cold back bedroom at Casa Tabor, Sister Betty’s house in one of Juárez’s northwestern colonias—the unpoliced and forgotten dirt and cobble street neighborhoods that house tens of thousands of underpaid factory workers and urban poor and now drug dealers and gangsters as well. It’s a neighborhood of concrete block houses of mixed quality—some with iron gates and red roof tiles, others run down and abandoned with tin roofs, boarded up windows and holes in the walls. The modest Casa Tabor stood out with its neat yard and pink hued adobe façade.

Charles Bowden
Charles Bowden (1945-2014) / Jack Dykinga via Simon & Schuster

Later that first evening, with a warm smile and slightly manic glint in her eye, Betty handed me the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine folded back to Charles Bowden’s “The Sicario,” an intense interview with a Juárez hit man that Bowden later turned into a book. At first I thought that Betty was trying to haze me into the fraternity of fear that has gripped this town since about 2008, when murders began to skyrocket. But the gleam in her eyes also served to inoculate me from that fear with her absolute faith in the resiliency and creativity of poor people in Latin America.

I wrote “sicario” in my little notebook, knowing it would come in handy over the next couple of days. Mexican sicarios have gotten the upper hand on reporters in recent years, enforcing a regime of censorship through fear at Mexico’s still spunky and highly competitive newspapers. Ten journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Mexico among the top ten deadliest countries for reporters every year between 2004 and 2011.

At least 29 people were murdered in Juárez during my five days there in January 2011. That statistic comes from the “Frontera List,” an archive that New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy maintains, dutifully recording Mexican media crime reports and relevant commentary on the drug wars, mainly from Juárez. I read Molloy’s dispatches every day for a few months, but then had to stop reading every single report because they were becoming too easy to dismiss, as in: There were only three murders in Juárez today.

For the Harper’s story, Bowden, an American writer who has followed drugs and crime along the border for decades, tracked down a former Mexican police officer who had worked for years as a hit man for narcos, kidnapping and executing and burying people across the country. The man was in the U.S., hiding from the drug cartels. Bowden sat with him at an anonymous motel, recording his life story in gruesome detail: the stranglings—his expertise—the chemicals he used to literally disappear bodies, the anonymous holes in the ground where mass graves still lie, undiscovered by authorities. The cocaine and whiskey and paranoia and the eventual salvation that came with being hunted himself.

Betty warned me before I read the piece that it’s a searing account, essentially damning to the Mexican authorities in passages like this one:

They hardly ever do police work; they are working full-time for narcos. This is his real home for almost twenty years, a second Mexico that does not exist officially and that coexists seamlessly with the government. In his many transports of human beings for bondage, torture, and death, he is never interfered with by the authorities. He is part of the government, the state policeman with eight men under his command. But his key employer is the organization, which he assumes is the Juárez cartel, but he never asks since questions can be fatal.

Jose Antonio Vargas, Gaza and the New Checkpoint Children

Two major global news events — apprehensions of child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border and the latest flare up of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — converged for me this week in a prescient piece by by journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas in Politico. Vargas is the undocumented reporter whom we’ve written about here (and who, full disclosure, blurbed Amor and Exile).

He wrote an essay about being “Trapped on the Border,” presaging his detention at the McAllen, Texas airport four days later. In the piece, Vargas quotes an immigration attorney friend who messaged him, asking, “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?”

Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.
Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Israel, another land of checkpoints, was preparing a ground invasion against the people of Gaza.

These two stories, and their portrayal in the media, share a number of critical themes. Vargas’ rude introduction to immigration checkpoints in the American South, reminded me of the long-standing Israeli use of checkpoints to control, humiliate and persecute Arabs. The checkpoint is a blatant symbol of Israeli occupation, just as it was of South African apartheid. And as it’s become along our southern border.

The checkpoint presupposes the ID card, which allows governments to place people into winner and loser categories: Israeli/Palestinian, black/Indian/coloured, documented/undocumented, immigrant/native.

The checkpoint puts law enforcement, or soldiers, or national guard into the position of suspecting everyone; their job, by definition, is to impede human progress, not to promote progress.

The checkpoint is a militaristic metaphor that has no place in a participatory democracy like Texas.

The checkpoint breeds fear, as Nicole dramatically describes in her passage in Amor and Exile on crossing into Mexico.

The checkpoint dissolves essential freedoms, like the freedom of movement, the right to presumed innocence, protections against search and seizure.

A line from the Jasiri X video below sums up the ethic of the checkpoint: “criminalized without a cause at the checkpoint.” (Note the apparent handcuffs on Vargas in the photo above.)

This gets close to the issue here, and the larger notion of our broken immigration system. We are so far from the ideals of the 1965 revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act that we no longer have any moral bearings on the meaning of immigration in the United States.

Vargas continues to ask us to Define American. In lobbying for abolishing the discriminatory quota system that the 1952 INA had cemented into law, then-President John F. Kennedy told members of the Italian-American community in 1963 that immigration to the U.S. was both a family affair and a way of building a nation:

We hope the Congress of the United States will accept these recommendations and that before this year is over we will have what we have needed for a good many years, which is the recognition that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country. — via The American Presidency Project

Vargas visited with child migrants at the border, kids who had come to the U.S. alone, like he did, in search of family and better fortunes.  “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through,” Vargas told The Guardian. “I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”

The volunteer in the short video below, posted by Vargas’ organization, Define American, defines American:

The Border Patrol held Vargas for most of the day on Tuesday and released him, as a low-priority detainee, according to the New York Times, with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.

Amor and Exile argues that at least, at least, the American public (and elected officials) should see the plight of U.S. citizens like Nicole, who are forced into exile because of the arbitrary immigration status of their spouses, as a starting point for reforming the system. But apparently, we can’t even see the plight of children — small children fleeing gang violence and poverty as a starting point for compassion. Instead, our model policy for these children, for leaders like Vargas, for our historically fluid international border is the command and control model of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, barriers and walls, militarization, suspicion and ethnocentrism and classism.

This is not the America (nor the Israel, for that matter) that I know. Our best hope is to take Vargas up on his call and really do the hard work of defining American, because I’m not sure I recognize her anymore.

Why Politicians Can’t Understand Mixed Immigration Status Families

Golden Gate Bridge

As we prepare to take Amor and Exile to San Francisco for a serendipitous event this week at the International Institute of the Bay Area, immigration reform efforts in Congress appear as stalled as ever. But the same cannot be said of action in the streets. Just last week, in San Francisco, immigration activists temporarily blocked a bus carrying deportees.

“Us, the community, have to step up and prevent the separation of families and keep our communities together,”  protester Dean Santos told KTVU.

[box type=”info”]Join Nathaniel Hoffman and Nicole Salgado (who will attempt to Skype in from the field) on October 24 for a discussion at the International Institute of the Bay Area, 657 Mission St., starting at 5:30 pm (reception). Free event, open to the public. RSVP on Facebook.[/box]

The protest in San Francisco followed larger protests and direct action training in Arizona three days prior in which activists also blocked  “deportation buses” in Phoenix and Tucson. The consistent and clear calls for keeping families together — to “prevent the separation of families,” as Santos put it above — have not been heard in Congress nor in the halls of public opinion. Even when an actual member of Congress, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a Chicago Democrat, travels around the country, for years, talking about keeping immigrant families together and keeping American families together, even when he’s arrested for it, the message does not come through.

Paloma Noyola Buena | Wired
Cover of November Wired Magazine showing Mexican math whiz Paloma Noyola Bueno.

Why? Why is the American public and the majority of Congress deaf to these calls for family unity? There are at least two reasons, hinging on the political and the personal realms. Politically, there is momentum to transform our immigration policy from one emphasizing family unity and family migration, as we have since the 1960s, to a more utilitarian focus on labor markets.

The super-positive pro-immigrant campaign coming out of Silicon Valley, the one that’s all over my Facebook feed, embodies this shift in many ways. While they are doing cool things like training activists in hacktivism, and they support a broad legalization program, their line on immigration reform focuses on workforce needs in the tech sector, innovation and talent. It’s exemplified by this month’s cover of Wired Magazine, a story about a young math whiz in Matamoros headlined “The Next Steve Jobs.” While the story is ostensibly about innovation in pedagogical techniques, the cover shot and the protagonist’s proximity to the border are clear references to immigration. Good ones, but, references that largely ignore relationships and families.

These sentiments away from family-based immigration are echoed in the Senate immigration bill, S. 744, which eliminates sibling sponsorship, limits green cards for adult children and kills the diversity visa in favor of new, merit-based visa tracks, tied to workforce needs.

Still, the Silicon Valley version of keeping families together could be re-couched in terms of networking. One of the arguments in Amor and Exile is that people frequently come to America for jobs, to be sure, but they come because someone told them about a job. A cousin, a brother, a mother who is already here put them in contact with a potential employer. Migration of any sort is a highly networked activity, built on relationships. That’s something that the LinkedIn set could easily sink its teeth into, echoing the family values arguments that anti-deportation activists are making.

The second reason politicians are not hearing the pleas of families separated through deportation is much more odious. It has to do with another central argument of Amor and Exile, that our immigration system is built from the dominant racial dynamics of the era. The fact is, many in Congress and many Americans in general do not see immigrant families, mixed-status families or bi-racial families as having equal claims to family values. Dean Santos, cited above, is portrayed in the media first as a former deportee, a stranger in our midst, and thus a second class citizen. His ties to the United States, to political activism and to relatives and friends here, are secondary.

Until the recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples were officially viewed as second class citizens for purposes of immigration (and many other federal benefits) as well. That changed, in no small part, as public sentiment toward gay marriage shifted in the wake of several years of super positive press coverage of gay couples. Everyone, it turns out, loves a wedding.

Which is why I was very pleased to see another form of direct action in August, as U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon wed his Mexican bride, Maricruz Valtierra, from opposite sides of the Paso del Norte bridge in El Paso. According to the El Paso Times article, Customs and Border Protection officials said border weddings are performed with some regularity in El Paso. We need to see more of these border weddings. Congress needs to see the white dresses and the mariachi bands and guests bearing blenders and wooden spoons. And Congress needs to hear from the teary parents of the betrothed who are forced to Skype into the wedding parties.

The immigrant youth movement is keyed into this fact; the annual Dreamer Graduation in Washington, D.C., included a wedding ceremony this past July, a lesbian wedding no less. But, and this is a key point, there will be no sudden outpouring of public, mixed-status weddings until something is done to curb the record numbers of deportations. I had a conversation with a strong immigration activist recently and throughout our talk I assumed she was already public about her husband’s undocumented status. But at the end of the conversation, when I asked her about possibly quoting her, she said no, that no one knows about his status. That it’s too risky still, too personal.

That is a key difference between the marriage equality movement, which is on such a roll in the public eye and the courts, and the immigration reform movement, which has been stymied in Congress. There are serious consequences to losing a state marriage equality fight to be sure, including violent repercussions. But they are different from the consequences of losing a public battle for a spousal green card, which can result in detention, separation and exile for families.

There are growing numbers of congressmen who have been to these weddings and know these couples, such as Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the CSPAN clip below. Every member of Congress has access to our book, Amor and Exile, and if they lost it, we’d be happy to send another. But let’s get them down to the border to see these regular border weddings, rather than the barbed wire and drone tours, which are so much more popular.

The Hebrew concept of ‘The Stranger’ and immigration reform

Diego Rivera

“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As a child, these words from the Book of Exodus, uttered each year at the Passover meal, my extended family gathered around fold up tables, defined religion for me.

Copy of Immigration sermon - Google Drive

Because you, yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Passover traditions implore us to act as though we were ourselves, literally, strangers in the Land of Egypt. We are encouraged to welcome strangers to our tables each year, commanded to retell the story of the exodus.

[box]Remarks by Nathaniel Hoffman, co-author of Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders with Nicole Salgado, Cordillera West Press (2013) delivered August 11, 2013 at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.[/box]

While the immigration history of America is indeed unique, the greater story of humanity is one of perpetual migration.

The Hebrews of the Torah, and Jews throughout the ages, have been strangers wherever we have sojourned. Egypt, Babylon, Western Europe, the streets of New York, certainly here in Boise, Idaho.

Diego Rivera
From the Diego Rivera mural, Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent at City College via When Paint Meets Purpose.

We are perpetual strangers who adapt quickly to local ways and yet are always reminded that we are strangers. We learn to hunt and fish, go to rodeos, eat hot dogs in jelly—and yet we remain outsiders—strangers— in certain ways.

But the English term stranger is problematic and does not capture the full essence of the Jewish concept of the “ger.” The Hebrew word for stranger, ger, is from the same root as the word for settling down, Gar, to live, to sojourn, to reside. The Hebrews were settled in Egypt for some 400 years prior to the Exodus. Their community grew and they were integrated, at least at first. A young Moses grew up behind the palace walls. And yet the Hebrews remained strangers in Egypt as well, eventually abused by later pharaohs and forced to flee.

And when they came out of Egypt, they became strangers again, for the Hebrew word ger has yet another meaning: a convert. The ancient Jews’ passage through the Red Sea and 40 years wandering in the desert offered another kind of strange conversion, a key moment in the development of Western thought that is seldom considered by Western scholars. It was the Jews’ passage out of Africa and into the Near East, into what would become the Judeo-Christian legal system and religious tradition. The wandering Jews, exiles from Egypt, developed a new society, based on the tribal culture of the desert and the religious and scientific advances of Ancient Egypt. They were strangers twice-over: gerim in Egypt, though thoroughly Egyptian, and gerim, converts, in the desert, forming a new community but perpetual strangers in seeking to join that community.

That second Biblical sojourn out of Egypt, out of Africa, parallels the kind of human migrations that science continues to reveal today. Migrations of strangers who settle, join new communities, but always bring their ideas and beliefs and knowledge and food and dance with them.

An excerpt from Amor and Exile:

This tale could go back even farther to the early reaches of human history, when direct human ancestors first encountered one another in the most intimate of terms. The history of early human migrations is still unsettled, but recent evidence from Australia and Asia points to at least three human ancestor subspecies that intermingled in the millennia after early humans traveled out of Africa. Sixty to eighty thousand years ago, according to some scientists, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) first paired with Neanderthals, a separate human subspecies, in Western Europe and East Asia and later on with the recently discovered Denisovans, another archaic human group, throughout southern and eastern Asia and Oceana.

It is still not clear how or when the offspring of these early human migrants arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Estimates range as widely as 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. But when European explorers “discovered” the New World in the 15th Century, their arrival heralded a whole new era of immigration love stories.

Even before the establishment of the union, the Atlantic Coast was well known for its mélange of cultures and nationalities and races. Conquerors and the conquered, travelers and settlers, slavers and the enslaved, Protestants and Catholics and Muslims and Jews and animists and Yorubas all met in the early colonies and explored all of the possibilities that came with seeking their fortunes, building a nation, defending territories and falling in love. This, of course, is a generous reading of American history—the conquest of America’s indigenous people was brutal and the young nation was clearly built on the back of African slave labor. But there is no doubt that amidst that brutality, there were also instances of humanity and love between members of different ethnic groups.

These relationships—both the loving ones and the many abusive ones— are what the early 20th Century black scholar W.E.B. DuBois called the “stark, ugly, painful, beautiful” fact of American life.

America is a nation of immigrants. As Oscar Handlin wrote in his 1951 book, The Uprooted: “Once I thought to write the history of American immigrants. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

But like the ancient Hebrews, in every generation we forget where we came from. Even from the very first settlers on our shores, we confused the immigration equation. In the Disney version of the Pocahontas story, it is the native peoples of this land who are portrayed as exotic and foreign—”strangers in their own lands,” as Native American educator Cornell Pewewardy put it.

White settlers wrote their discomfort with foreign sojourners into our earliest laws, banning miscegenation, or inter-racial marriage, as early as the 1660s. Though African people settled in this country at the same time as white Europeans, our early immigration and marriage laws were designed to bolster the institution of slavery and maintain European control. Citizenship has always been tied to the dominant racial ideology in the United States.

Just as African Americans adopted themes from the Exodus story as they fought off the shackles of slavery in the 1800s, Mexican Americans can claim the mantle of strangerhood today.

Juan Diaz, who was deported back to Mexico from Nampa in 2008, feels like stranger in his own land, after a lifetime in the U.S.

Excerpt from Amor and Exile:

 There has always been trauma in leaving La Virgen. But over the years the trauma of northward migration, a special form of exile invented again and again by millions of rural Mexicans throughout the latter 20th Century, became normal. Juan went North for the first time in 1990, seeking a nest egg to attend college, to study medicine, or maybe animal science, like Nicolas. But he liked the nest egg better than the idea of furthering his studies, so he kept going North—six times in 19 years. He crossed the porous border like everyone else, rebuffed again and again by the Border Patrol—he’s forgotten how many times—until he made it to the interior where he was welcomed with paid work, with freedom of movement and association, with the NFL and college ball on TV. Where his brothers and sisters and father were eventually welcomed with papers.

Juan worked as a breakfast cook and housekeeper in Mammoth Lakes, California, and in a wood products plant in Nampa, Idaho. He worked and he went home to La Virgen to renew his ties with his mother, to his mother country. But his exile—this uniquely Mexican form of emigration—was slippery. At first he left home out of economic necessity, unable to find the kind of salary he desired in La Virgen. He followed the example of his father and left home seeking his fortune abroad. But as the fruits of that fortune grew and the economy in La Virgen further stagnated, he accepted this economic exile as his new reality, in many ways giving up on La Virgen. His life abroad—eventually more than half his lifetime—became just his life.

Now Juan is exiled back to his own hometown, banned from allá, pre- vented by U.S. immigration law from settling down with his family, getting a work permit and eventually citizenship and living the American dream.

Fast forward to today. Congress has the opportunity to make gerim like Juan—a stranger in all of the ancient Hebrew connotations, migrant, settler, convert to the American Dream—whole again. Juan’s American wife, Veronica, is a stranger in Mexico today, living there with their four children, unable to return with her husband to the United States.

The Obama administration, while supporting the idea of reforms, has continued deporting strangers from our midst at historically high rates—more than any other president in our history. He is approaching 2 million deportations this year. While this may be counter to our Biblical tradition and counter to the stated rationale of family unification in our official immigration system, it is in line with our own history of welcoming the stranger with fingers crossed behind our backs.

As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, an early thinker in orthodox Judaism wrote a century and half ago:

 “Therefore beware, so runs the warning, from making rights in your own State conditional on anything other than on that simple humanity which every human being as such bears within. With any limitation in these human rights the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings.”

But there is another American trait which gives us comfort this morning as well. An undying optimism and herky jerky arc toward justice. As British comedian Ricky Gervais, who wrote and direct the British version of The Office said of the difference between Americans and Brits:

“They’re slightly smarter. They’ve got better teeth. They got more ambition. They’re slightly broader. But the big difference is the Americans are more optimistic. And that’s due to the fact that Americans are told, they can become the next president of United States. And they can. British people are told, it won’t happen to you. And they carry that. They carry that with them.”

I’d like to end with one more reading from Amor and Exile that reflects on this unique American optimism:

Americans have always possessed a certain well-documented optimism when it comes to our futures, our abilities, our rights. It’s right there in the founding documents: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any American child can grow up to be President of the United States. We don’t, but we could. We can all be rich, but we’re not. We can go wherever we want, whenever we want. Or at least we believe we can.

We travel freely across state lines and across most international borders because we are Americans and we are free. In January 2011 I walked into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from El Paso, Texas, over the concrete channel that is the Rio Grande. I was carrying a large green backpack and I passed a Mexican soldier who did not even look me over. It was an official international crossing point and no one checked my passport. No Mexican official asked me a single question.

Our optimism is infectious, intoxicating, addicting even, though it’s also rife with bootstrapping myth and false hope. Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez, writing about the legacy of farmworker rights activist Cesar Chavez for The Wilson Quarterly, identified this uniquely American optimism as the catalyst for the rising tension along our border with Mexico:

“If you would understand the tension between Mexico and the United States that is playing out along our mutual border, you must understand the psychic tension between Mexican stoicism—if that is a rich enough word for it—and American optimism. On the one side, Mexican peasants are tantalized by the American possibility of change. On the other side, the tyranny of American optimism has driven Amer- icans to neurosis and depression—when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised. This constitutes the great irony of the Mexican-American border: American sadness has transformed the drug lords of Mexico into billionaires, even as the peasants of Mexico scramble through the darkness to find the American Dream.”



Immigration bans will keep some same-sex couples in “amor and exile”

Jenny and Ottie

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling striking down Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA, opens up the U.S. immigration system to same-sex couples. Tens of thousands of Americans are now able to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes, entitling them to green cards and eventual citizenship.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald, Guardian columnist in exile.

Binational couples celebrated the end of DOMA all over the world, as many have been forced into exile, unable to live in the United States legally with their partners. Glenn Greenwald, journalist for The Guardian who recently broke the NSA snooping scandal, lives in Brazil with his partner, David Miranda. They could now benefit from the end of DOMA by applying for a spousal or fiancé visa—they have already demonstrated to the Brazilian government that their relationship is the equivalent of a married couple, and Greenwald earned full immigration benefits there.

From Amor and Exile:

“Greenwald said that they would like to live in the United States at some point, as it would be convenient for his work as a frequent television and radio commentator. But they are also happy in Brazil. He also does not want to be a poster child for same-sex couples in exile, though he writes about it from time to time.

Greenwald, a frequent critic of President Obama’s continued War on Terror policies and other federal issues, says that the Obama administration’s refusal to defend DOMA is one of the best things the administration has done. The courts will overturn the law and immigration judges will be able to grant spousal benefits to same-sex couples, he says.”

Yesterday’s news proved that prediction correct. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas told the American Immigration Lawyers Association conference in San Francisco today that the agency has been keeping track of immigrant visa applications from same-sex couples for the last year and will expedite their review, now that the agency officially has that authority.

But some percentage of the estimated 24,000 same-sex binational couples in the U.S. and the many couples living abroad will now face the same immigration hurdles that other binational couples like Nicole and Margo have faced—bans from the United States because of their immigration history.

Our book anticipated the end of DOMA in this way. Up until yesterday, all same-sex couples faced a different set of immigration barriers—the total lack of access to the immigration system. Today, many will face the same barriers that millions of straight couples have faced since 1996.

Greenwald’s immigration case is relatively straightforward since he met his partner abroad and Miranda has no immigration violations on his record. But J.W. Lown’s partner, whom I call Gabriel in the book, to protect his identity, is subjected to a 10 year ban, as is Jenny Phipps’ wife, Ottie.

J.W. Lown
J.W. Lown at his ranchito near San Angelo, Texas in May 2012, his first visit home since moving to Mexico.

Lown is the former mayor of San Angelo, Texas, a Republican, and for the past four years, a real estate agent in San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico. Gabriel entered the United States illegally and stayed for more than a year, earning a 10 year ban. He contacted the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City recently and they told him he’s not even eligible for a tourist visa.

“He went to the embassy and they said to come back in 2019,” Lown told me this morning, adding that DOMA is a life changer. But it’s not going to be a simple visa application for J.W. and Gabriel—they are going to have to apply for an extreme hardship waiver and prove that it’s been a hardship for them to live abroad. J.W.’s story of fleeing south with Gabriel on the eve of his fourth swearing-in as the popular mayor of San Angelo, will probably help the application process, but they will need to consult a lawyer, go to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez twice and take the risk of a denial, a process that is detailed in Amor and Exile.

Jenny and Ottie
Jenny Phipps and Ottie Pondman on their wedding day last year in Zoetermeer.

Jenny and Ottie are even further away, in the Netherlands, and are really unsure of how to proceed. They can’t afford a lawyer and are not even sure why Ottie has a 10-year ban.

“We don’t know how it’s going to affect us yet because Ottie still has that 10 year bar,” Jenny said. “We’ve just been kind of numb from the news. It’s like, what do we do now, what can we do now? Are we locked, imprisoned for the next six years?”

More than 900 people joined a conference call today with Immigration Equality, a group that has been fighting to overturn DOMA and help binational same-sex couples access the immigration system. They had questions about visa waivers, when to apply for immigrant status, how to explain previous tourist or work visas in light of new family-based applications and many other questions. Immigration attorney Prerna Lal posted this list of immigration benefits that the end of DOMA allows, along with a list of continued barriers for gay and lesbian couples.

Also today, the comprehensive immigration reform bill, SB 744, passed the U.S. Senate, and while it does not include any provisions specifically for same-sex couples, gay couples now have an equal stake in the bill, in the wake of DOMA’s demise. That means that eased hardship waiver provisions in the bill could help couples like JW and Gabriel and Jenny and Ottie as well.

The Senate bill now moves over to the House, which has its own, still unclear agenda on immigration reform. One thing is clear however: the marriage equality movement succeeded in a big way yesterday in convincing the nation that relationships forged in love should be treated equally, regardless of gender or immigration status. If that same momentum carries forward for the larger immigration reform effort, American citizens stand to benefit in numerous ways, not the least of which is the power to determine whom they choose to marry and where they choose to live.